ALBERTO CONTADOR emerged from a mist-shrouded Col du Tourmalet yesterday with his Tour de France race lead intact and one foot on the top of the Paris podium.
Although Andy Schleck, his rival for the race leader’s yellow jersey, won the 174-kilometre 17th stage from Pau, Contador managed to sit on the Luxembourg rider’s wheel to the top of the 18.6-kilometre Pyrenean peak to retain his eight-second lead ahead of Sunday’s finish on the Champs Elysees.
Saturday’s 52km time-trial between Bordeaux and Pauillac represents the final chance for Schleck (Team Saxo Bank) to recover time.
Contador (Astana), though, is the more competent rider against the clock — finishing 42 seconds and 116 places ahead of Schleck in the Tour’s opening 8.9km prologue — and the Spaniard now appears to have one hand on a third Tour title in four years.
However, Contador is guarding against complacency and insisted the maillot jaune is not yet won.
“What was most important to me today was not to lose time and also that I had a very good feelings throughout the entire stage,” said Contador, who won the 2007 and 2009 Tours.
“I’m still wanting and wishing to win my third Tour de France — I’m not yet there.
“I still have to reach Paris and it’s not easy.
“We have a very long and tough time-trial on Saturday.”
Schleck is not prepared to give up while the opportunity of victory remains.
“We will see after the time-trail,” said Schleck.
“It’s only eight seconds and I can see the yellow jersey in front of me.
“I really want it and I’m not going to give up until Paris.”
Irishman Nicholas Roche finished a fabulous 12th place on yesterday’s stage, three minutes and 27 seconds behind stage winner Andy Schleck.
Roche trundled over the line on his own ahead of many of the more established Tour riders and moved from 18th to on the General Classification up to 15th. He now lies 16 minutes off the yellow jersey.
Roche could potentially improve on his 18th place as the remaining stages are relatively flat and not suited to long distance breakaways.
The Tourmalet, preceded by the equally tough Col du Soulor and the Col de Marie Blanc wreaked havoc with the peloton but Roche dug deep on the perilously steep hors categorie climb, clinging like a limpet to the wheels of better placed GC riders Denis Menchov (Rabobank) and Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi).
The Dubliner swung off the diminished front group of just eight riders approaching the final few bends but did enough to move up three places and give himself a great chance of finishing in the top 15.
His time-trialling on Saturday’s penultimate stage will by crucial as a 52 kilometre test against the clock is an area where he has fallen down in the past.
Yesterday Schleck and Contador shared in an epic battle.
Two-thirds of the way up the 18.6km hors categorie (beyond category) Col du Tourmalet, Contador and Schleck went together pedal stroke for pedal stroke over 32 minutes to the summit.
With 10km remaining, Schleck made his move and Contador followed.
They swept past the last rider of the day’s seven-man escape, Alexandr Kolobnev (Katusha), before seeking the summit.
The duo staked out the climb from opposite sides earlier this year, but now they were racing up to the finish.
Schleck kept a high tempo and attempted to shake off Contador, but the Spaniard remained on his wheel.
The Luxembourg rider continually looked over his right shoulder, eye-balling Contador to look for any weakness in his rival.
Each acceleration by Schleck was matched by Contador; the single burst by the Spaniard was snuffed out by the Luxembourg rider.
The duo again exchanged a few more words but neither made the decisive move.
Schleck was first to the line, winning the battle, but Contador appears to have won the war after finishing half a wheel length behind.
Contador refused to acknowledge the race was over and will not begin to contemplate overhauling Lance Armstrong’s record of seven Tour wins.
The 27-year-old said: “Until now my third Tour de France is not there yet.
“What Lance did in winning seven Tours de France is something which is absolutely not in my mind — I want to go year-by-year and maybe at the end of my career we’ll speak about that.”
Schleck added: “Before this Tour everybody said the best climber in the world is Alberto, but I think I showed differently, that I’m with him now.”
Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha) was third, one minute 18 seconds behind, while Ryder Hesjedal (Team Garmin-Transitions) was fourth, a further nine seconds adrift.
Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) recovered from an earlier crash to finish five seconds further back to hold on to his third-placed position ahead of Denis Menchov (Rabobank), who was sixth today, eight seconds behind Sanchez.
Armstrong (Team RadioShack), who was third in 2009, was 17th today, 4:17 behind to sit 23rd overall, now ahead of Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky).
Tomorrow’s 198km 18th stage from Salies-de-Bearn to Bordeaux is expected to be one for the sprinters, with Thor Hushovd seeking to retain the points classification leader’s green jersey ahead of Alessandro Petacchi and Mark Cavendish.
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